Sunday, February 1, 2004

Super Bowl XXXVIII: The Edge


In closely matched game, coaching may be difference

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Mark Curnutte
HOUSTON - Though Super Bowl Week XXXVIII might have lacked in personality, the game has the feel of one that will be well-played and decided late.

New England is further along in its evolution under coach Bill Belichick, but John Fox's Panthers are similarly built with a dominating defense, drum-tight special teams and a diligent offense.

Points will be at a premium. But there will be plenty of hard hits delivered on defense.

A difference could be the Patriots' experience - they upset the Rams in the Super Bowl two years ago - and the coaching ability of Belichick and his staff.

QUARTERBACK

Tom Brady is at his best in the playoffs. His postseason record is 5-0, and he has two interceptions in 175 pass attempts.

Jake Delhomme might be the second coming of Brady, leading the Panthers to the Super Bowl in his first season as a starter. He doesn't rattle, either - he engineered six fourth-quarter comebacks. Still, he hasn't faced a defense as good as New England's.

Edge: Patriots

RUNNING BACKS

The good news for the Panthers is the renewed health of tailback Stephen Davis, who injured his quadriceps in the playoff win at St. Louis. He'll face a New England run defense that was fourth in the league at 89.6 yards a game. A keep-away game with Davis and DeShaun Foster running well would enhance Carolina's upset chances.

Antowain Smith had his second 100-yard game of the season in the AFC Championship Game, but it came against a leaky Colts defense. Carolina's good against the run, too, having finished 11th.

Edge: Panthers

RECEIVERS/TIGHT END

Much is made of the mirror images at head coach and on defense and special teams, but New England's Troy Brown and Carolina's Steve Smith are the same kind of under-sized big-play receivers who also are dangerous on punt returns.

Smith has 324 receiving yards in the postseason but must contend with a Patriots secondary that clamped the Colts' Marvin Harrison. The physical Muhsin Muhammad must make clutch catches.

Brown has nine receptions in two playoff games, but he is just one in a deep pool of Patriots receivers. David Givens is steady, but rookie Bethel Johnson is the deep threat with a 20.3-yard playoff average.

Edge: Even

OFFENSIVE LINE

Carolina's line is especially strong at tackle, where rookie Jordan Gross and old pro Todd Steussie probably won't be confused the way the Rams' tackles were two years ago in Super Bowl XXXVI. The heat will be on the Panthers' line to provide running room - and thus ball control.

New England's line will face a major challenge from the best pure front four the NFL has seen in many years. The Panthers' defensive line - Mike Rucker leads with 12 sacks - might be neutralized by Brady's quick timing routes and release. The Patriots' line will have to create running room to maintain some balance in the offense.

Edge: Panthers

DEFENSIVE LINE

New England tackles Ted Washington and Richard Seymour could present problems in the middle for Carolina's rush offense.

One of the Panthers' most decided advantages could take shape when their defensive line matches up with New England's offensive line. Carolina has the opportunity to disrupt the Patriots' offensive timing in a big way.

Edge: Panthers

LINEBACKERS

Fans probably grew tired of hearing and reading about the health of Tedy Bruschi's calf, but the Patriots middle linebacker is a cog in the run defense and effective as a pass defender. The Panthers will run at the Patriots linebackers.

A healthy Dan Morgan at middle linebacker makes the Carolina defense even better. He had an interception and 11 tackles in the NFC title game.

Edge: Patriots

DEFENSIVE BACKS

This is where the game might be won or lost. The Patriots' defensive backs, led by strong safety Rodney Harrison and cornerback Ty Law, shut down the high-flying Colts. The matchup against Carolina's receivers could be New England's biggest advantage. If the Patriots play Harrison in the box to stop the run, lanes will be open for Delhomme, Smith and Muhammad.

Carolina's secondary is not as good as its counterpart. Rookie cornerback Ricky Manning will have to come up with another big game.

Edge: Patriots

SPECIAL TEAMS

The kicking game could be a wash. Both special teams are strong, with the exception of New England punter Ken Walter, who had the league's second-worst gross average at 37.7 yards.

Edge: Panthers

COACHING

Belichick is at the top of his profession in personnel decisions, game-planning and game management. He and his staff alone could be worth a decisive three points. And that's taking nothing away from Fox and his veteran staff.

Edge: Patriots

Curnutte's prediction: Patriots 16, Panthers 13




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